Wife of fallen trooper pushes Legislature to change survivor benefits

JUNEAU — The wife and three daughters left behind by Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Scott Johnson, shot dead while responding to a 2014 call for help in Tanana, lost health insurance coverage just weeks after the 23-year veteran was murdered. So did the family of Trooper Gabe Rich, who was killed in the same incident.

Under current state policy, family members of law enforcement officers and firefighters who die on the job lose coverage at the end of the month in which the policyholder dies.

“I took all the information in and decided that it just wasn’t right,” said Brandy Johnson, the sergeant’s wife of 19 years, during a visit to the State Capitol pushing lawmakers to pass House Bill 66. “I’m doing this for my husband, myself, my three daughters, two other spouses of officers who were killed in the line of duty, and future surviving spouses and their families.”

The push for a policy change began when Johnson sent a letter to former Gov. Sean Parnell, who worked with the Legislature to get the funds needed to pay for the families’ insurance while a long-term change is weighed.

House Majority Leader Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, is now carrying the bill and said Wednesday she believes it will gain traction now that an operating budget is out of the House awaiting review from a conference committee. Previously, committees were prohibited from reviewing bills without a fiscal impact.

“This is a small way of saying, ‘We appreciate your spouse’s service.'” Millett said. “Ultimately, it’s the right thing to do. When a person puts themselves in harm’s way to protect other Alaskans, this is really the right thing to do.”

The family of Trooper Tage Toll, who died in a 2013 helicopter crash, may also be affected by the bill.

While the bill was introduced at the beginning of the 29th Legislature in 2015, it has received little attention while sitting in the Labor and Commerce Committee. Part of the problem was that it previously was modified to include all state employees, not just law enforcement officers and firefighters, Millett said.

With a narrower focus, there is a significantly smaller fiscal impact to state government, facing a nearly $4 billion gap between revenue and spending. An exact cost estimate is still being prepared, and it is unclear when the bill will get picked up by the Labor and Commerce Committee.

Other changes include continuing coverage for children of deceased officers and firefighters until they are age 26, and making the coverage secondary if a spouse gets coverage through their employer or qualifies for Medicare.